Thursday, January 26, 2017


As an almost lifelong science fiction reader (mostly "soft" SF, since I'm mainly a fantasy and horror fan), I can't help nitpicking at the new TV series TIMELESS, even though I'm enjoying it. Premise: The antagonist has stolen the prototype time machine (the Mothership) in order to leap around through U.S. history trying to change the past, for reasons that seem justified and vitally important to him. The good guys—a historian (Lucy), a soldier tasked with eliminating the villain by any means available, and the scientist mainly responsible for inventing the time travel device—pursue the thief in the smaller "Lifeboat" and struggle to keep history on track. The writers of the program attempt to take seriously the present-day reverberations of changes in the past, e.g., Lucy returns from the first excursion to discover that her terminally ill mother is fine and was never sick, she had a different father in the new timeline, she's engaged to a man who's a stranger to her, and her sister's existence has been erased. Alterations occur only when it suits the plot, however; the "butterfly effect" of small deviations potentially cascading into huge changes doesn't show up.

Just as series such as GILLIGAN'S ISLAND have the Omnidisciplinary Scientist, an expert in whatever category of science that week's plot requires, TIMELESS has an Omnidisciplinary Historian. Like experts in any other field of study, professors of history specialize. No one historian can know every period in minute detail, not even every period in American history (which seems to be Lucy's specialty). Her familiarity with the events of every date the time machine lands on and the backstory of every historical person they meet strains credibility. It wouldn't take more than an extra minute or two for each episode to show her reading up on whatever span of dates they're about to visit, which would go a long way toward plausible suspension of disbelief. And what's with that huge walk-in closet stocked with any type of clothing the travelers happen to need? When the time machine was built, did the designers PLAN to hop all over the past two or three centuries risking permanent damage to the timeline?

Hardest for me to accept is the scene in last week's episode, when Lucy tries to spook a serial killer in 1893 by revealing knowledge of details of his past that would appear only in an in-depth biography—and the team had no advance reason to suspect they would even meet this guy.

At the beginning of the same episode, Lucy has been kidnapped by the villain and taken to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. One character laments, as they're preparing to pursue the Mothership, "We're short a historian." Have they forgotten the Internet exists? If Lucy were there, she would probably have to look up the World's Fair to gather information or at least refresh her memory; the other characters could brief themselves the same way.

What really bugs me, though, is how the characters behave with such a sense of urgency in every episode. They have some means of tracking the Mothership. They always know where and when the villain has landed. Yet they act as if catching up with him is a life-or-death rush. Uh—they have a TIME MACHINE. They could research the target date and location for months or years, then transport themselves to the precise place and moment to intercept the villain.

Clearly the writers either haven't thought through the implications of time travel or ignore them in the interests of drama. A glaring example of consequences of the fact that a network science fiction series has to appeal to a general audience, not just the SF-fan subset thereof.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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